Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Media Myth-Information: The Tragedy of Ma'alot Casts a Shadow on Peace Negotiations

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Media Myth-Information: The Tragedy of Ma'alot Casts a Shadow on Peace Negotiations

Article excerpt

Media Myth-Information: The Tragedy of Ma'alot Casts a Shadow on Peace Negotiations

By Alfred M. Lilienthal

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's White House handshakes with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, Middle East peace is not yet at hand. There still is too little trust on either side. Nor is trust enhanced by persistent efforts by the U.S. and Israel, in concert, to pressure Syria and Jordan into signing final peace agreements before final agreement is reached with the Palestinians concerning Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and Palestinian sovereignty. The suspicion grows that the Israeli government deliberately is planting media "myth-information" to delay the hard negotiations with the Palestinians.

For example, when Yasser Arafat returned to Gaza from a Cairo meeting on July 12, 1994, two Palestinians attached to his entourage were barred from entering with him. According to The New York Times, Rabin spokesman Oded Ben-Ami said the two men had never been given permission to enter Gaza because they had planned the infamous May 15, 1974 raid on a high school in the northern Israeli town of Ma'alot, where "one of the most horrific terrorist assaults had taken place." In that raid, the Times account reported, three Palestinian gunmen had taken scores of students hostage. When Israeli soldiers stormed the school to rescue the young-sters, the gunmen opened fire, killing 22 students and wounding dozens more.

The true story of what actually took place is far from the Israeli version repeated by the Times. Three fedayeen from the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP) stole across the Lebanese-Israeli border (an Israeli nurse testified that one actually had been living in nearby Safad for some time). At 6 a.m. they seized the Ma'alot school, in which 90 teenage members of the semimilitary Nahal had been spending the night after some training.

Fifteen youngsters escaped through an open door at the time of the takeover, and two were allowed to leave because they were ill. The guerrillas sent two more youths out with a list of 26 prisoners held in Israeli jails whose release they demanded in exchange for the hostages. They asked that the French and Rumanian ambassadors serve as mediators.

The guerrillas demanded that the prisoners--23 Palestinians, two Israelis and one Japanese--be flown to Damascus. As soon as the arrival of the released prisoners was confirmed in the Syrian capital, the mediating ambassadors would receive through Paris and Bucharest a code word with which to identify themselves before starting negotiations for the release of the hostages. If no code word was received by 6 p.m., the guerrillas warned, they "would not be responsible for the consequences."

Half an hour before the guerrilla deadline, while negotiations were underway between the Palestinians, Israelis, Cairo (from where the plane which was to carry out the Palestinian prisoners was to come) and the ambassadors, Israeli military forces attacked the school. In the ensuing battle, the three fedayeen were killed, as were 16 children, victims either of exploding Palestinian grenades or Israeli bullets. Initial U.S. and British media accounts both reflected and fanned world outrage at the brutal killing of innocent children, and ignored evidence that instead of doing everything in their power to avert the tragic loss of life, both the Israeli military and government had over-reacted. It was left to the French ambassador to Israel to cast the first doubts on the oversimplified story disseminated by the Western press at that time, and still being disseminated by the U.S. press today.

First Doubts

Ambassador Jean Herly had waited at the French consulate in Haifa throughout the afternoon for the Israeli authorities to call him to Ma'alot. At 2 p.m. he was informed by the Israelis that he would not receive the code word permitting him to negotiate with the fedayeen until the prisoners held by Israel had reached Damascus. At 3:22, according to Israeli Foreign Ministry documents, the ambassador had requested permission to proceed at once to Ma'alot. The answer was delayed. Realizing at 4:45 that it had become impossible to organize the release of the Palestinian prisoners and get them to Damascus in time for the 6 p.m. deadline, the ambassador had taken it upon himself to fly by helicopter to Ma'alot to plead with the Palestinians to extend their deadline.

Upon his arrival in Ma'alot, a high-ranking Israeli officer asked the French ambassador if he had the code word. He replied in the negative. Then, he told Agence France Presse, he asked to meet Israel's minister of defense or chief of staff, "thinking that I could, perhaps, even without the code word and through my diplomatic pass, get into contact with the fedayeen and try at least to postpone the expiration of the ultimatum."

The Israeli government decided early to reject the Palestinian conditions.

That, he was informed, would be "too dangerous." A few minutes later, at 5:30, the ambassador told the press, he heard shots and explosions. "I was told it was all over and asked to return to Tel Aviv." Acting on direct orders of the chief of staff, at 5:20 p.m., 40 minutes before the ultimatum's expiration, Israeli military forces had stormed the building. A diplomat to the end, Herly said he was certain that the authorities "had not willfully" sought to prevent him from speaking to the terrorists but, "I still ask myself and wonder: What could have been done that was not done between 5 o'clock and 6 o'clock?"

Noting that he had been denied permission to talk to the Palestinians on the grounds that he had not received the code word from Palestinian headquarters in Damascus, Herly later told the Jerusalem Post that there must have been a "grave misunderstanding" because he was, in fact, not supposed to receive the code word until the released prisoners had arrived safely in Damascus. Nevertheless, Israeli Information Minister (now Foreign Minister) Shimon Peres insisted that Herly never could have talked to the Palestinians without having the code word in his possession.

In fact, according to an account three days later in the Tel Aviv daily Ha'aretz of May 17, the Israeli government had decided early in the morning to reject the Palestinian conditions. To buy time, however, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Gen. Mordechai Gur informed the fedayeen that they agreed to the exchange.

As in their response to the terrorist raid at the Munich Olympics in September 1972, the Israelis justified the decision to storm the school by alleging that the Palestinians intended to kill their young hostages when the ultimatum ran out. In fact, according to then PDFLP spokesman Yasser Abed Rabbo (now Palestine's minister of information) the three terrorists had orders to extend the original deadline by two hours in the event no agreement had been reached.

The Palestinians maintained that at no time had they planned to harm the hostages if their demands were met. Instead, they planned to release half of the hostages in return for the release of the prisoners on the list, and then release the second half in exchange for safe passage of the three Palestinian guerrillas out of Israel.

It was the Palestinian contention that the Israeli political decision to storm the school "whatever the consequences," had been decided long before the deadline was reached. According to the PDFLP version, the Rumanian and French ambassadors first were told by the Israelis that they did "not have any aircraft available to take the prisoners to Damascus." Later the Rumanian government was notified half an hour before the deadline and at the exact time the Israelis stormed the school that the Palestinian prisoners had actually taken off for Cyprus.

PDFLP leader Nayef Hawatmeh challenged Israel to submit to a public postmortem to determine who, in fact, had been responsible for the bloodshed. The Israeli government ignored this suggestion. In fact, the border settlement of Ma'alot, once the Arab village of Tarchiha, had been carefully chosen for this raid on the 26th anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli state.

This western Galilee village was to have been included in the Palestinian state to be created under the U.N. partition plan of 1947. However, it was attacked and occupied by Jewish militia forces before the creation of Israel on May 15, 1948. It then was annexed to the Israeli state. The Arab villagers had fled during the fighting. After the 1949 armistice, they and Palestinians from other villages were barred by Israeli forces from returning to their homes. Instead, Tarchiha was razed to the ground, and the Israeli village of Ma'alot was built on the ruins.

The U.S. media were totally uninterested in any explanation of Palestinian thinking at the time of the raid on Ma'alot. By coincidence, on May 14, 1974, the evening before the attack on Ma'alot, I was in Beirut, taping a conversation with notorious terrorist Abu Nidal, leader of a group that had split off from the PDFLP and was then Iraq-oriented.

This 25-year-old Palestinian, meeting with me in a Beirut hotel, expressed himself frankly:

"We believe that Palestine is ours, and the only way to get back what is ours is to fight...I am not Mr. Sadat. I am a Palestinian, and I am not concerned with world opinion, including American, which has done nothing for our very fair cause for more than 26 years. The world can respect you only when you are strong enough to stand in the face of the world and fight for your cause...We showed we were serious in our attack on Qiryat Shemona, and we will strike again."

His reference had been to the Palestinian attack six weeks earlier on an Israeli border village in which 18 Israelis had been killed and 16 injured. But three of his own companions had also lost their lives, the oldest of whom was just 20 years old.

No one dared question the Israeli propaganda that the sole Palestinian aim was to spread terror without cause.

The following day, when I reached London, this pertinent tape was used on BBC television and radio and on ITN. However, when I arrived in New York 48 hours after the Ma'alot tragedy, no one on any of the radio or television news and talk shows dared question the Israeli propaganda that the sole Palestinian aim was to murder the innocent and spread terror without cause.

Absolute hysteria reigned in the Jewish American community. Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold and companions chained themselves to a fence in front of the U.N. in protest. Addressing a large, emotional rally, New York Mayor Abe Beame urged the U.N. to adopt immediate sanctions against Arab countries to avert further acts of terrorism. New York Post columnist Peter Hamill proclaimed:

"And now they are killing children, Israeli children. People were dying in the deserts of the Middle East. Israel, which had initially allied itself with the U.S. on a moral basis, had discovered that it was just another colony, its fate in the hands of Henry Kissinger, whose wife kept Arab swag in a wall safe in her bedroon."

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Golda Meir announced that her government had been prepared to submit to the commandos' demands to free the prisoners, but had not had enough time to act. On television she vowed that Israel "will do everything in its power to chop off the hands that intend to harm a child or an adult in any city or village."

Within hours after the Ma'alot attack, Israeli air attacks over two successive days killed 52 people in Lebanon. Targets included south Lebanese villages and the Ain El Helweh and Burj El Barajneh Palestinian refugee camps north and south of Beirut, and the Nabatiya refugee camp.

One of the freed Ma'alot students, 16-year-old Rachel Lagziel, told reporters that the hostages were allowed to listen to their transistors and to hear all the news broadcast in Hebrew. "We were allowed to drink our water and eat our provisions," reported another survivor, 18-year-old Tamara Ben-Hamu. "Don't be afraid," one commando had told them. "If Israel gives us the prisoners, you will not be harmed."

None of this appeared in the U.S. press. It was, however, reported by Israeli journalists who interviewed the children.

Another devastating victory had been chalked up by Israeli propaganda. The effects linger, as illustrated by Israel's July 12 action barring two Palestinians from entering Gaza, and clouding the prospects for lasting Middle East peace. As Artemus Ward once quipped: "T'aint people's ignorance that does the harm. 'Tis their knowin' so much that ain't so."

Alfred M. Lilienthal is the author of What Price Israel?, The Other Side of the Coin and The Zionist Connection.

Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.

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